Embracing the Circular Economy

Maikel Kuijpers
Assistant Professor, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
Maikel Kuijpers’ essay on the Circular Economy gives us a unique perspective on the way that ancient populations repurposed, reused, and recycled “waste” objects and materials when they were in scarce supply. He writes:

The repurposing of objects and materials may be as old as tool use itself. In Palaeolithic times, smaller flint tools were made from old hand-axes. People in the Neolithic period had no problem reusing standing stones to construct their tombs, such as seen in Locmariaquer in France. Even ceramics, made from clay and therefore available in abundance, were frequently recycled. Old pottery was often ground down to powder and used in the clay for new pots. On Minoan Crete, this ceramic powder, known as grog, was also used to manufacture the mudbricks from which houses were built.

At the Bronze Age site in Hungary where I excavate, spindle whorls made from broken pot fragments turn up regularly. Large stones at this site pose an interpretative dilemma because of their continuous reuse and repurposing, from grindstone to anvil and doorstep to wall support. In fact, up until the 20th century, repair, reuse, and repurposing were common ways of dealing with material culture. The dominance of the wasteful linear economy is a real historical anomaly in terms of resource use. [Emphasis added]

But, he adds, “we should be careful not to fall into the trap of the ‘noble savage’. Our ancestors were no ecological saints. They polluted their surroundings through mining, burned down entire forests, and they too created massive amounts of waste. Just look at Monte Testaccio, a large artificial hill in Rome made up entirely out of broken amphorae.”

Monte Testaccio, Rome. Diego Fiore/Shutterstock.com

When things are in abundance, people easily accept a wasteful and exploitative attitude. But for most of the past, most things were not in abundance, and so a core practice of a circular economy was adopted. This did not happen due to ideological motivation, but out of necessity. (Read the full article here.)


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